The New Statesman Profile - Vladimir Putin

Liberals fear a Pinochet-style regime; but Russia's new leader is their best hope. Vladimir Putin pr

A few weeks short of nine years ago, in August 1991, as the all-but comic coup against Mikhail Gorbachev collapsed, I stood at midnight outside the Lubyanka in the centre of Moscow and watched as the statue of Felix Dzherzhinsky was wrenched off its pedestal. "Iron Felix" had founded the KGB on Lenin's command. Cruel, ascetic and devoted to the Bolshevik cause, he had served as an icon for the men who worked in the hulking building behind the statue, some of whom (one could see from the twitching curtains) were watching events on the square outside.

Dzherzhinsky's was one of the finest of the thousands of statues of the early Bolsheviks, then spread thickly across the Soviet Union. The sculptor had given him a long coat, which swept about him as he gazed haughtily down what had been Marx Avenue to Revolution Square, his little beard jutting up into the Moscow air.

But down he had come. The crowd's leaders had got acetylene cutters to sever the brass rods holding him upright on his plinth, and had fetched a tall crane - which had been doing some repairs on the US embassy a mile or so away - to lift the statue clear. That statue's fall was even more unambiguous in its unerring aim at oppression than was the scaling of the Berlin Wall two years before. As it hung there for some minutes at the end of the crane's jib, before being tenderly lowered, you felt that to be part of such a crowd was to be given the nearest thing to grace in a world from which God had long since departed.

Off went Iron Felix - not to hell, but to a purgatory near the Tretyakov Gallery, which was named the Park of the Totalitarian Period. And there he has stayed, a little piece of exotica for the knowledgeable tourist, a place of pilgrimage for the dedicated pro-Soviet. Until now. Now, on the initiative of a group of deputies of the Agrarian Party - closely allied to the Communist Party - Dzherzhinsky may be moved back to look down towards Revolution (now Manezh) Square once more.

Is this symbolic? Is President Vladimir Putin a new autocrat, bent on returning to the spirit if not the text of the Soviet era? Last year, he unveiled a plaque to Yuri Andropov, for two decades the leader of the KGB, of which Putin was a member. He is widely believed to have drunk a toast to Stalin on the dictator's birthday last year. One of his new officials has admitted to keeping a bust of Dzherzhinsky on his desk - and, as a former KGB general, the man would not have made such a comment without the belief that it would command an approving grunt from above.

There is more than rhetoric or show here. An acquaintance, a foreigner who has run businesses here for the past decade, told me how one of his clients had been turned over by the tax police. On their heels came the security services, who offered a choice: turn over part of the business profits to them, or go to jail for tax offences. An employee of the biggest private bank, Alfa, was arrested by the militia and handed over to the security services, which proposed that he do some spying for them. As Pytor Aven, one of the two "oligarchs" who run Alfa, said: "The security services think they hear the old music playing again."

Is the old music playing again? Are we seeing a not-so-slow, not-so-subtle undermining of the democratic and civil achievements of the Yeltsin era, which, although awash with rackets and racketeering, still observed, very broadly, the classic liberal freedoms and allowed a diversity of opinions to flourish?

Many liberals certainly think so. The people who voted, by a large majority, for Putin in March voted for many things, many of them contradictory. Putin has made it as clear as he has made anything that he regards the market as the only viable form of economic organisation, and his determination to further the imperfect economic reforms of the Yeltsin era has been signalled by his appointment of leading lights from the liberal economists to the economic portfolios.

Yet Putin has also started a series of challenges, on the grounds of non-payment of taxes or of illegal privatisation, to the "oligarchs" - the men who have vastly enriched themselves over the past ten years, under the protection and with the encouragement of Yeltsin - and these challenges, clumsily repressive and ill-prepared as they have seemed, have won him more popularity. That the first object of the Putinschina should be Vladimir Gusinsky - who in Media-MOST has created the strongest and best-presented TV and print group in opposition to the present government - has made many in Russia certain that we are seeing the adumbration of a Latin American approach of the Pinochet (Chile) or Fujimori (Peru) type. This involves a devil-take-the-hindmost drive for priva-tisation and strict monetary control, combined with an authoritarian state that can cope with the resulting discontents. As the real cynics say of this prospect: "We should be so lucky."

But the cynics and the liberals are wrong in their scepticism, and their fear. Putin is not the nightmare they claim him to be. Indeed, he is the liberals' and the oligarchs' best hope; if he fails in what he intends to do, then either he will resort to harsher methods or, more likely, he will be swept away and someone who is dying to be harsh will step in.

The distinguishing feature of Vladimir Putin is his realism. He has told the people, most notably in his state of the nation address to the parliament earlier this month, that "the state has to a very large degree assisted in the dictatorship of the shadow economy . . . raging corruption and a huge outflow of capital"; that "today's economic indices look optimistic only against the background of yesterday's"; that "the main obstacles to economic growth are high taxes, the arbitrary actions of functionaries and the rampage of criminal elements"; and that "we are losing out in the competitive world market". He also said that "it is to the advantage of a weak power to have weak parties; a strong power needs strong competition"; that "without truly free media, Russian democracy will simply not survive and we will not succeed in building a civil society"; and that "our strategic policy is the following - less administration, more free enterprise, more freedom to produce, to trade, to invest".

All a liberal show, like Stalin's constitution? The question is not absurd when set alongside Russia's history for producing facades of democracy, or beside the Andropov-Dzherzhinsky "restorations". But it leaves out what has changed. In the past ten years, alongside the corruption, misery and chaos, there have emerged 100 shoots of civil societies which, although tender, are deeply inimical to a presence in the Kremlin that attempts to uproot them. People travel too much, publish and read too much, trade too much, use the internet too much. They are undergoing consumer revolutions, sexual revolutions, intellectual revolutions and business revolutions. They are surer than they were a decade ago that they are part of Europe, and less concerned than they were ten years ago that the rich have got rich.

Chechnya, where torture has been used on a vast scale, is a horror. But horrors (leaving aside that the Chechen "state" had collapsed into banditry, drug-running and clan warfare, and that no leader existed with whom the Russians could deal) do not have to blow back into the state perpetrating them - as the histories of the British and French empires, and of the US suppression of the native Americans, all show. All of these states became more democratic and civil in the heyday of their imperial or internal repressions; the problem was that they left the enemy, or the imperial subjects, out of the democratic equation. Lenin's dictum, to the effect that Britain could never be free while Ireland was in chains, is at best, like many of his dictums, deeply misleading.

Putin has given the oligarchs a fright, in the crude Russian manner. Now he has to give them a choice: either get out of politics and criminality and do the business you say you wish to do, or take the heat. He may continue to act spitefully and viciously towards Gusinsky, and that is a cause for concern to the future of the media. But further he will not go.

This is not Iron Vladimir, whatever romance he and others care to weave about the former bosses of their organisation. This is a man seeking to create an efficient state.

The liberals can preserve themselves, widen their area of influence and assist Russia to civility by co-operating with him while the chance is there to do so.

John Lloyd, who writes fortnightly for the New Statesman, is a former Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times

This article first appeared in the 31 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why Tony Blair is a Bobo